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Charles Sumner

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Charles Sumner
United States Senator
from Massachusetts
In office
April 24, 1851 March 11, 1874
Preceded by Robert Rantoul, Jr.
Succeeded by William B. Washburn
Personal details
Political party Republican (once Democrat)
Spouse(s) Alice Mason Hooper
Profession Politician

Charles Sumner ( January 6, 1811 March 11, 1874) was an American politician and statesman from Massachusetts. An academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the United States Senate during the American Civil War and Reconstruction along with Thaddeus Stevens, who filled that role in the United States House of Representatives. He jumped from party to party, gaining fame as a Republican. One of the most learned statesmen of the era, he specialized in foreign affairs, working closely with Abraham Lincoln. He devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power, that is the scheme of slave owners to take control of the federal government and block the progress of liberty. His severe beating in 1856 by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks's cane on the floor of the United States Senate (Sumner-Brooks affair) helped escalate the tensions that led to war. After years of therapy Sumner returned to the Senate to help lead the Civil War. Sumner was a leading proponent of abolishing slavery to weaken the Confederacy. Although he kept on good terms with Abraham Lincoln, he was a leader of the hard-line Radical Republicans.

As a Radical Republican leader in the Senate during Reconstruction, 1865-1871, Sumner fought hard to provide equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen, and to block ex-Confederates from power. Sumner, teaming with House leader Thaddeus Stevens defeated Andrew Johnson, and imposed their hard-line views on the South. In 1871, however, he broke with President Ulysses Grant; Grant's Senate supporters then took away Sumner's power base, his committee chairmanship. Sumner supported the Liberal Republicans candidate Horace Greeley in 1872 and lost his power inside the Republican party.

Early life, education and law career

Charles Sumner's birthplace marked on Irving Street

Sumner was born in Boston on Irving Street on January 6, 1811. He attended the Boston Latin School. He graduated in 1830 from Harvard College (where he lived in Hollis Hall), and in 1834 from Harvard Law School where he studied jurisprudence and became a protege of Joseph Story. At Harvard, he was a member of the Porcellian Club.

In 1834, Sumner was admitted to the bar, entering private practice in Boston, where he partnered with George Stillman Hillard. A visit to Washington filled him with loathing for politics as a career, and he returned to Boston resolved to devote himself to the practice of law. He contributed to the quarterly American Jurist and edited Story's court decisions as well as some law texts. From 1836 to 1837, Sumner lectured at Harvard Law School.

Travels in Europe

Charles Sumner in his younger years

From 1837 to 1840, Sumner traveled extensively in Europe. There he became fluent in French, Spanish, German and Italian, with a command of languages equaled by no American then in public life. He met with many of the leading statesmen in Europe, and secured a deep insight into civil law and government.

Sumner visited England in 1838 where his knowledge of literature, history, and law made him popular with leaders of thought. Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux declared that he "had never met with any man of Sumner's age of such extensive legal knowledge and natural legal intellect." Not until many years after Sumner's death was any other American received so intimately into British intellectual circles.

Beginning of political career

In 1840, at the age of 29, Sumner returned to Boston to practice law but devoted more time to lecturing at Harvard Law School, to editing court reports, and to contributing to law journals, especially on historical and biographical themes.

A turning point in Sumner's life came when he delivered an Independence Day oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations," in Boston in 1845. He spoke against war, and made an impassioned appeal for freedom and peace.

He became a sought-after orator for formal occasions. His lofty themes and stately eloquence made a profound impression; his platform presence was imposing (he stood six feet and four inches tall, with a massive frame). His voice was clear and of great power; his gestures unconventional and individual, but vigorous and impressive. His literary style was florid, with much detail, allusion, and quotation, often from the Bible as well as ancient Greece and Rome. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that he delivered speeches "like a cannoneer ramming down cartridges," while Sumner himself said that "you might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelations."

Sumner cooperated effectively with Horace Mann to improve the system of public education in Massachusetts. He advocated prison reform and opposed the Mexican-American War. He viewed the war as a war of aggression but was primarily concerned that captured territories would expand slavery westward. In 1847, the vigor with which Sumner denounced a Boston congressman's vote in favour of the declaration of war against Mexico made him a leader of the " conscience Whigs," but he declined to accept their nomination for the House of Representatives.

Sumner took an active part in the organizing of the Free Soil Party, in opposition to the Whigs' nomination of a slave-holding southerner for the presidency. In 1848, he was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. He became senator as a Democrat in 1850, but later became a Republican.

In 1851, control of the Massachusetts General Court was secured by the Democrats in coalition with the Free Soilers. However, the legislature deadlocked on who should succeed Daniel Webster in the U.S. Senate. After filling the state positions with Democrats, the Democrats refused to vote for Sumner (the Free Soilers' choice) and urged the selection of a less radical candidate. An impasse of more than three months ensued, which finally resulted in the election of Sumner by a single vote on April 24.

Biographer David Donald has probed Sumner's psychology:

Distrusted by friends and allies, and reciprocating their distrust, a man of "ostentatious culture," "unvarnished egotism," and "'a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility,'" Sumner combined a passionate conviction in his own moral purity with a command of nineteenth-century "rhetorical flourishes" and a "remarkable talent for rationalization." Stumbling "into politics largely by accident," elevated to the United States Senate largely by chance, willing to indulge in "Jacksonian demagoguery" for the sake of political expediency, Sumner became a bitter and potent agitator of sectional conflict. Carving out a reputation as the South's most hated foe and the Negro's bravest friend, he inflamed sectional differences, advanced his personal fortunes, and helped bring about national tragedy.

Service in the Senate

Antebellum career and attack by Preston Brooks

John L. Magee of Philadelphia created Southern Chivalry—Argument Versus Clubs, a lithograph that shows Northern outrage over Preston Brooks's attack on Sumner.

Sumner took his seat in the United States Senate in late 1851, as a Democrat. For the first few sessions, the abolitionist-democratic and reformist Sumner did not push for any of his controversial causes, but observed the workings of the Senate. On August 26, 1852, Sumner, in spite of strenuous efforts to prevent it, delivered his first major speech. Entitled "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional" (a popular abolitionist motto), Sumner attacked the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and called for its repeal.

The conventions of both the great parties had just affirmed the finality of every provision of the Compromise of 1850. Reckless of political expediency, Sumner moved that the Fugitive Slave Act be forthwith repealed; and for more than three hours he denounced it as a violation of the Constitution, an affront to the public conscience, and an offense against the divine law. The speech provoked a storm of anger in the South, but the North was heartened to find at last a leader whose courage matched his conscience.

In 1856, during the Bleeding Kansas crisis when " border ruffians" approached Lawrence, Kansas, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the "Crime against Kansas" speech on May 19 and May 20, two days before the sack of Lawrence. Sumner attacked the authors of the act, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing Douglas to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. He ridiculed Butler for a speech defect caused by his heart condition.

Sumner said Douglas (who was present in the chamber) was a "noisome, squat, and nameless animal...not a proper model for an American senator." Most serious was his extreme insult of Butler as having taken "a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot, Slavery." Not content to leave his assault on a political level, Sumner's three hour oration took a very personal and cruel turn as he began to mock the 59 year-old Butler's manner of speech and physical mannerisms, both of which were impaired by a stroke that Butler had suffered earlier.

Two days later, on the afternoon of May 22, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and Butler's nephew, confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks was accompanied by Laurence M. Keitt also of South Carolina and Henry A. Edmundson of Virginia. Brooks said "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner, who was six feet and four inches tall, began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner severely on the head with a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who was holding a pistol and shouting "Let them be!"

Sumner did not attend the Senate for the next three years, while recovering from the attack. In addition to the head trauma, he suffered from nightmares, severe headaches and (what is now understood to be) post-traumatic stress disorder. During that period, his enemies subjected him to ridicule and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties in the Senate. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery.

The attack revealed the increasing polarization of the Union in the years before the American Civil War, as Sumner became a hero across the North and Brooks a hero across the South. Northerners were outraged, with the editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant, writing:

The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.
Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?... Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?"

The outrage heard across the North was loud and strong, and historian William Gienapp later argued that the success of the new Republican party was uncertain in early 1856; but Brooks’s "assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force."

Some Southerners even sent Brookes canes, in rejoicement of his attack.

Conversely, the act was praised by Southern newspapers; the Richmond Enquirer editorialized that Sumner should be caned "every morning," praising the attack as "good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences" and denounced "these vulgar abolitionists in the Senate" who "have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission."

American Civil War

After three years Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859. He delivered a speech entitled "The Barbarism of Slavery" in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election. In the critical months following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Sumner was an unyielding foe to every scheme of compromise with the Confederacy.

After the withdrawal of the Southern senators, Sumner was made chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March 1861, a powerful position for which he was well-qualified owing to his years and background of European political knowledge, relationships, and experiences.

As chair of the committee, Sumner renewed his efforts to gain diplomatic recognition of Haiti by the United States, which Haiti had sought since winning its independence in 1804. With Southern senators no longer standing in the way, Sumner was successful in 1862.

The signing of the Alaska Treaty of Cessation on March 30, 1867. L-R: Robert S. Chew, William H. Seward, William Hunter, Mr. Bodisco, Eduard de Stoeckl, Charles Sumner and Frederick W. Seward.

While the Civil War was in progress, Sumner's letters from Richard Cobden and John Bright, from William Ewart Gladstone and George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, were read by Sumner at Lincoln's request to Cabinet, and formed a chief source of knowledge on the delicate political balance pro- and anti-Union in Britain.

In the war scare over the Trent affair (where the U.S. Navy illegally seized high-ranking Confederates from a British Navy ship), it was Sumner's word that convinced Lincoln that James M. Mason and John Slidell must be given up. Again and again Sumner used his chairmanship to block action which threatened to embroil the U.S. in war with England and France. Sumner openly and boldly advocated the policy of emancipation. Lincoln described Sumner as "my idea of a bishop," and consulted him as an embodiment of the conscience of the American people.

Sumner was a longtime enemy of United States Chief Justice Roger Taney, and attacked his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. In 1865, Sumner said:

I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also..."

As soon as the Civil War began, Sumner put forward his theory of Reconstruction, that the South had by its own act become felo de se, committing state suicide via secession, and that they be treated as conquered territories that had never been states. He resented the much more generous Reconstruction policy taken by Lincoln, and later by Andrew Johnson, as an encroachment upon the powers of Congress. Throughout the war, Sumner had constituted himself the special champion of blacks, being the most vigorous advocate of emancipation, of enlisting the blacks in the Union army, and of the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Civil rights

Sumner was unusually far-sighted in his advocacy of voting and civil rights for blacks. His father hated slavery and told Sumner that freeing the slaves would "do us no good" unless they were treated equally by society. Sumner was a close associate of William Ellery Channing, a minister in Boston who influenced many New England intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Channing believed that human beings had an infinite potential to improve themselves. Expanding on this argument, Sumner concluded that environment had "an important, if not controlling influence" in shaping individuals. By creating a society where "knowledge, virtue and religion" took precedence, "the most forlorn shall grow into forms of unimagined strength and beauty." Moral law, then, was as important for governments as it was for individuals, and laws which inhibited a man's ability to grow — like slavery or segregation — were evil. While Sumner often had dark views of contemporary society, his faith in reform was unshakeable; when accused of utopianism, he replied "The Utopias of one age have been the realities of the next."

Senator Sumner and his good friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The annexation of Texas — a new slave-holding state — in 1845 pushed Sumner into taking an active role in the anti-slavery movement. He helped organize an alliance between Democrats and the newly created Free-Soil Party in Massachusetts in 1849. That same year, Sumner represented the plaintiffs in Roberts v. Boston, a case which challenged the legality of segregation. Arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Sumner noted that schools for blacks were physically inferior and that segregation bred harmful psychological and sociological effects — arguments that would be made in Brown v. Board of Education over a century later. Sumner lost the case, but the Massachusetts legislature eventually abolished school segregation in 1855.

A friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, Sumner was also a guiding force for the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission. The senator was one of the most prominent advocates for suffrage, along with free homesteads and free public schools for blacks. Sumner's outspoken opposition to slavery made him few friends in the Senate; after delivering his first major speech there in 1852, a senator from Alabama rose and urged that there be no reply to Sumner, saying "The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm." His uncompromising attitude did not endear him to moderates and sometimes inhibited his effectiveness as a legislator; he was largely excluded from work on the Thirteenth Amendment, in part because he did not get along with Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and did much of the work on the law. Sumner did introduce an alternate amendment that would have abolished slavery and declare that "all people are equal before the law" — a combination of the Thirteenth Amendment with elements of the Fourteenth Amendment. During Reconstruction, he often attacked civil rights legislation as too weak and fought hard for legislation to give land to freed slaves; unlike many of his contemporaries, he viewed segregation and slavery as two sides of the same coin. He introduced a civil rights bill in 1872 that would have mandated equal accommodation in all public places and required suits brought under the bill to be argued in federal courts. The bill ultimately failed, but Sumner still spoke of it on his deathbed.

In April 1870, Sumner announced that he would work to remove the word "white" from naturalization laws. He had in 1868 and 1869 introduced bills to that effect, but neither came to a vote. On July 2, 1870, Sumner moved to amend a pending bill in a way that would strike the word "white" wherever in all congressional acts pertaining to naturalization. On July 4, 1870, he said: "Senators undertake to disturb us . .  by reminding us of the possibility of large numbers swarming from China; but the answer to all this is very obvious and very simple. If the Chinese come here, they will come for citizenship or merely for labor. If they come for citizenship, then in this desire do they give a pledge of loyalty to our institutions; and where is the peril in such vows? They are peaceful and industrious; how can their citizenship be the occasion of solicitude?" He accused legislators promoting anti-Chinese legislation of betraying the principles of the Declaration of Independence: "Worse than any heathen or pagan abroad are those in our midst who are false to our institutions." But Sumner's bill failed, and from 1870 to 1943 (or in some cases, to 1952) Chinese and other Asians were ineligible for U.S. citizenship.

Personal life and marriage

Sumner was serious and somewhat prickly, but he developed friendships with several prominent Bostonians, particularly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose house he visited regularly in the 1840s. Longfellow's daughters found his stateliness amusing; Sumner would ceremoniously open doors for the children while saying "In presequas" in a sonorous tone.

A bachelor for most of his life, Sumner began courting Alice Mason Hooper, the daughter of Massachusetts congressman Samuel Hooper, in 1866 and the two were married that October. It proved to be a poor match: Sumner could not respond to his wife's humor, and Hooper had a ferocious temper she could not always control. That winter, Hooper began going out to public events with Friedrich von Holstein, a German nobleman. While the two were not having an affair, the relationship caused gossip in Washington, and Hooper refused to stop seeing him. When Holstein was recalled to Prussia in the spring of 1867, Hooper accused Sumner of engineering the action (Sumner always denied this) and the two separated the following September. News of the situation quickly leaked out, to the delight of Sumner's enemies, who referred to him as "The Great Impotency" and claimed (without proof) that Sumner could not perform his marital duties. The situation depressed and embarrassed Sumner; the two were finally divorced on May 10, 1873.

Reconstruction years and death

Charles Sumner in his elder years

Sumner was strongly opposed to the Reconstruction policy of Johnson, believing it to be far too generous to the South. Johnson was impeached by the House, but the Senate failed to convict him (and thus remove him from office) by a single vote.

Ulysses Grant became a bitter opponent of Sumner in 1870 when the president mistakenly thought that he had secured his support for the annexation of the Dominican Republic.

Sumner had always prized highly his popularity in Great Britain, but he unhesitatingly sacrificed it in taking his stand as to the adjustment of claims against Britain for breaches of neutrality during the war. Sumner laid great stress upon "national claims." He held that Britain's according the rights of belligerents to the Confederacy had doubled the duration of the war, entailing inestimable loss. He therefore insisted that Britain should be required not merely to pay damages for the havoc wreaked by the Confederate Ship Alabama and other cruisers fitted out for Confederate service in her ports, but that, for "that other damage, immense and infinite, caused by the prolongation of the war," Sumner wanted Britain to turn over Canada as payment. (At the Geneva arbitration conference these "national claims" were abandoned.)

Under pressure from the president, he was deposed in March 1871 from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Relations, in which he had served with great effectiveness since 1861. The chief cause of this humiliation was Grant's vindictiveness at Sumner's blocking Grant's plan to annex Santo Domingo. Sumner broke with the Republican party and campaigned for the Liberal Republican Horace Greeley in 1872.

Death of Charles Sumner
Sumner's headstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Charles Sumner House in Boston

In 1872, he introduced in the Senate a resolution providing that the names of Civil War battles should not be placed on the regimental colors of army regiments. The Massachusetts legislature denounced this battle-flag resolution as "an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation" and as "meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people of the Commonwealth." For more than a year all efforts– headed by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier– to rescind that censure were without avail, but early in 1874 it was annulled. His last words uttered around his closest colleagues and friends was noted to be "save my civil rights bill".

Charles Sumner died in Washington, D.C., March 11, 1874. He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sumner was the scholar in politics. He could never be induced to suit his action to the political expediency of the moment. "The slave of principles, I call no party master," was the proud avowal with which he began his service in the Senate. For the tasks of Reconstruction he showed little aptitude. He was less a builder than a prophet. His was the first clear program proposed in Congress for the reform of the civil service. It was his dauntless courage in denouncing compromise, in demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, and in insisting upon emancipation, that made him the chief initiating force in the struggle that put an end to slavery.


The following are named after Charles Sumner:

  • Charles Sumner Lofton (1912-2006), pioneering African-American high school principal
  • Charles Sumner Tainter (1854-1940), American inventor
  • Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957), American Arts and Crafts architect
  • Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, opened in 1875, the first black high school west of the Mississippi .
  • Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas, now closed, the school played a key role in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and is on the National Register of Historic Places
  • Sumner Academy of Arts and Science, (Sumner High School prior to 1978) in Kansas City, Kansas
  • Charles Sumner School in Washington, DC (now a museum)
  • Charles Sumner Post #25, Grand Army of the Republic in Chestertown, MD.
  • Charles Sumner Elementary School in Boston, MA
  • Charles Sumner Elementary School in Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • Charles Sumner Elementary School in Syracuse, NY (now closed)
  • Charles Sumner House, Sumner's home in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Sumner Library in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Sumner County, Kansas
  • Sumner, Nebraska
  • Sumner, Washington
  • Avenue Charles Sumner, in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti
  • SS Charles Sumner, a World War II Liberty cargo ship.
  • Avenida Charles Sumner, in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic
  • Charles Sumner Junior High School in Manhattan, New York (now renamed)
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